British scholar David Hesmondhalgh says, “Music … represents a remarkable meeting point of the private and public realms, providing encounters of self-identity (this is who I am, this is who I’m not) with collective identity (this is who we are, this is who we’re not).” When I decided to contribute a piece to Black Girl Nerds, I had several ideas floating through my head–whether to write about film, music, or the practice of being a black nerd.
Having too many ideas is dangerous because it leads to confusion and indecisiveness, which renders me useless and struggling to work. With that said, I decided to start with my roots as a writer, subsequently as a music writer. This piece is part confessional and part critical look at the intersection where identity happens. It’s about music, about me, and inextricably about being young, black and female.
It begins in the summer of my 15th birthday when I decided to literally chain myself to the desk and write a novel–a rock ‘n’ roll fantasy not unlike Lady Boss by Jackie Collins. Mind you, the chain was a plastic toy. It only served as a reminder for me to sit and write. I had discipline and though my parents were concerned that I was chained to the desk, they encouraged me to write.
I created a sort of ethnic female protagonist; she was neither black nor white yet vague enough to be both or neither. I gave her a snappy name that I have since (thankfully) forgotten but I’m sure it was structured as a “Name St. La Name.” It was high-level drag without the queen. In short, she was privileged, famous, and had “torrid” affairs with rock gods at her whim–all things that were foreign to me. It was difficult understanding how to write what I knew in a world that was unlike my own. Needless to say, the novel was less than successful.
But I was 14 staring at my Guns and Roses, Poison, and Great White posters and scribbling my summer away on notebook paper. It was respite from the heat–my heaven and it filled 300+ pages in a Trapper Keeper.
It was at the end of this same summer when school began that I decided to pursue the writer’s life–new clothes, new hair, new persona. The writer’s life was a construct that I created influenced by my adoration of Edgar Allen Poe.
My dream was to travel the world with musicians and write the sort of stories that Pamela Des Barres told in I’m With The Band. I didn’t have aspirations to write for great magazines like Rolling Stone or draft ripping critiques of rock like Lester Bangs. I low-balled my dream–wanting to write for Metal Edge and Circus–the sort of fluff that teens enjoy. In my naïveté, I also didn’t consider the very real fact that there are few black writers in rock music, which is probably to my benefit.
As we grow there are several points at which we exert our personality and let the pieces of our identity begin to present themselves. But it is in the final years of primary school that we solidify who we will be into our adulthood. Naturally, some things change–I got infinitely more feminist and much more critical of music and musicians–but we form our real character in those important school years.
On the first day of English Class in 10th grade, I sat in my homeroom desk ready–the new me–dark hair, dark lips, melted kohl eyeliner, and a new name. Our teacher called roll and asked if we had a preferred moniker other than the one on her sheet. A few did. Some Elizabeths wanted to be Beths or Lisas. Some Jonathons wanted to be just Jon.
Such wasted opportunities. A name should be descriptive, mysterious or in my case, it needed to be dark–to be rock and roll.
When the teacher got to me she read my name, “Erica E. Rucker.” I was cool–full of attitude–with black, chin-length Jheri Curl bangs covering my eyes. I replied, “Call me Raven.”
I didn’t realize that I was taking my first brave steps at structuring my identity in that moment. All I knew is that if I was going to be a rock music writer my world–from my name to my lips–needed to fit the lifestyle and be black. What is more rock and roll than that?
To this day, I swear the teacher bit her lip to keep from laughing but she wrote down what I said and moved along. I, on the other hand, felt that I’d made a ridiculous mistake and that I definitely did not want to be called, “Raven.”
Being black and liking alternative music changed when my sister and I were invited to our first punk show. A bi-racial kid that we used to see at the mall stared us down and passed us a flyer to come see his band. It was the first confirmation that we weren’t anomalies and the first time I’d let myself explore the presence of blackness in typically white subcultures. We weren’t the only ones and our entry into our local punk scene came through a black face.
Eventually (read=immediately) I dropped the name Raven but I never stopped being the same music obsessed chick that I’d been in high school. My husband and I hosted a psychedelic rock and folk festival, Terrastock VII, in 2008. I started writing about underground music online and became a music columnist with my local alt-weekly, the Louisville Eccentric Observer or LEO, where I write an op-ed and pop up in the music section on occasion to bemoan the lack of Guided By Voices concerts. At this point, I’m at an age where I realize that all of those moments of feeling awkward and goofy but refusing to change were the right choice. On a very basic level, the awkwardness seems to be beneficial. Complacency seems to come with conformity. I couldn’t conform–still can’t.
For LEO, I got an assignment to read and review Laina Dawes’ book, What Are You Doing Here? A Black Woman’s Life and Liberation in Heavy Metal and again felt vindicated. I also thought, why haven’t I written my own story? I told it once in brief for one of my columns but never in as much detail as I could. There are years to fill–the punk years, the interlude of hair metal, re-entry into the world of punk and subsequently psych and experimental rock. I’ve done things that would impress young Raven.
One of my greatest moments as a music writer came this past year when I got the remarkable opportunity to interview Rob Halford of Judas Priest. The worlds of rock music and heavy metal are not bursting with diversity so getting to speak with him about his coming out and its effect on his career was monumental. For a black rock fan, seeing glimpses of multiplicity are always welcome.
Finding BGN is another moment of absolution that affirms my life has not been irregular. There are people here like me and it feels right to share this story because we all “got this way” somehow. Bottom line, I think there is significance in telling these stories because it is important that we exist–black, nerdy, geeky or otherwise.
Erica Rucker is a professional writer with a Master’s degree in English. Ever involved in a creative adventure, Erica has, in the past, performed regionally as a featured poet. She regularly creates SEO content, writes editorials, interviews, and music reviews for LEO Weekly. In addition to writing, Erica co-founded an arts group and hosted an international music festival with her husband, Rob.